Every bit of conventional fashion-industry wisdom would dictate that Area should fail. The brand, founded by Parsons School of Design graduates Beckett Fogg and Piotrek Panszczyk in 2013, is almost impossible to search for online. The partners don’t have investors or large corporate backing (preferring to make their own way), nor do they make traditionally wearable or salable garments. But at Coachella this year, Area ranked third in earned media value—a financial sum assigned to social media engagement—outpaced only by Revolve and Fashion Nova. Those behemoth labels spent thousands of marketing dollars. Area spent none and yet had both Katy Perry and Kendall Jenner in their pieces. Jenner, in fact, has been one of the brand’s most steadfast fans, wearing and posting about it as early as 2015. “It happened out of love for our stuff, which is great,” says Panszczyk. “We have never had to push Area on people.”
A scroll through Area’s Instagram proves that love radiates far and wide. Ariana Grande posed with her dog in Area’s fuchsia faux-fur top and jacket. Indya Moore wore rainbow crystals to this year’s Pride parade in New York. Then there’s Michelle Obama, who chose a black suit with a cascading crystal fringe for an appearance on her Becoming book tour.
The mention of Obama’s suit causes a flutter in Area’s studio, where I meet the designers in late June. Posterboards cling to every wall, pinned with reference images for the upcoming Spring 2020 collection, and the design team is diligently stitching and soldering on tables scattered with ruffles and crystals. This season, big-time couture shapes will be spliced with masculine-feminine tailoring and some of the pair’s most extreme crystal creations yet. (As you read this, one dress is being finished by a furniture maker in New Jersey. It’s so large, no jewelry factory could fit the piece into its machinery, so it will be produced more like a chandelier than a gown.)
Fogg and Panszczyk are calmly directing the chaos. If there’s something old school about the archival magazine editorials pinned on the walls and the impressive handiwork that’s occurring inside their studio, it’s outweighed by the innovation that Fogg and Panszczyk value above all else. They want to push the boundaries on every front: design, commerce, communication, community. Throughout a two-hour conversation, Fogg and Panszczyk toggle seamlessly between pragmatically discussing their digital marketing strategy to posing philosophical questions about the future of fashion (and maybe humanity). “In the end, the goal is to rethink the future of clothing and of people. How can we get there through design?” wonders Panszczyk. “How can we rethink the entire process?”
If this seems like an impossibly big task, Area starts things very small: with textiles. As students, both Fogg and Panszczyk focused on material development above everything else. “Our work was quite different, but in the way of working, there was some similarity. I was shaving things away and Beckett was embossing things, so patterns were appearing out of nothing,” says Panszczyk.
“I think we were both starting by using the textile as the starting place and then seeing what you can do to that textile,” Fogg adds. Their earliest pieces for Area were embossed cotton and lamé T-shirts that retailed at Opening Ceremony, which is across the street from their studio, for $85. “It was an easy connection to find a client immediately,” Panszczyk says. “We also sold, like, 2,000 of those T-shirts.”
That was in 2014, when Area had just landed on the radar of Style.com—now Vogue Runway—and began creating fantastical lookbooks photographed by Charlotte Wales and styled by Clare Byrne. Those early images have an intense retro-futuristic spirit, all pastel backdrops, whipping ponytails, and sylphlike models glamming it up. The best way to describe the images will sound like nonsense, but I know it’s right: the way Franco Rubartelli would shoot Veruschka in the year 5,000 in outer space. Panszczyk explains, “I feel like the magic of the lookbooks at the beginning was that it was so unattainable, so extremely aspirational that it almost became…”
“...fantasy,” chimes in Fogg.
“But it was also rejected by some people. Some people found it almost too glossy, too much in that moment. But in that rejection, we had already started posing new ideas.”
By 2015, Area had graduated to runway shows, and as a hot young brand on the American fashion scene, Fogg and Panszczyk were feeling the pressure to define themselves in that oversaturated landscape. “We were doing denim at one moment, and it clearly had a lot of potential. We were getting a lot of advice from a lot of different people, like, ‘You should just be a T-shirt and denim brand,’” Fogg says. “It was a pivotal moment because I think we could have had pretty immediate success going in that direction, but that wasn’t what Area was about.”
Instead, Area congealed around ideas of joy, radiance, passion, and glamour. With a maximalist language of silk, satin, lamé, lace, appliqués, and crystals, Fogg and Panszczyk have turned out some of the most provocative, challenging, and interstellar fashion New York has seen in years. There have been iridescent second-skin minis worn with Night Porter hats, gigantic green ruffles paired with sporty bike shorts, and manipulated houndstooths that spell out A-R-E-A in Balenciaga-inspired shapes.
For Spring 2020, the pair will introduce crystal beards that hook around models’ ears and giant new-wave suits. With so much going on, their shows are not always easy to parse out, but that over-the-top quality is Area’s secret sauce. And even better than getting these pieces placed in editorials and on the backs of celebrities is that Area actually sells at retail. In Barneys New York, one of the first stores to pick up the label, Area has a full rack.
“For something to sell at full price retail—which is the goal—you have to be drawn to it on an emotional level,” Fogg says. “These full crystal gown pieces, some of which are thousands and thousands of dollars, we sell these because people are immediately drawn to them on an emotional level and it’s something new and exciting that they can’t get anywhere else. I think it’s been important for us to realize that commercial doesn’t mean dumbing anything down. In fact, it means raising it up to the next level.”
Panszczyk adds, “I think it proves the value of creativity.…For us, the new generation of designers is about making money off design. It’s not just being conceptual about it or being high end. It’s also asking, How can it be desirable and live in someone’s closet? How can these amazing pieces really live in someone’s life? When we started living that, that’s when everything started happening for us.”
Fogg and Panszczyk are quite wise about their business—and they don’t want to hide that. “The business part of what we’re doing informs the design completely,” says Fogg. Through Instagram tags and DMs, the pair communicate daily with their fans and clients, using the data they collect to serve their customers’ needs better. “We really build a lot from sitting behind a phone,” says Panszczyk, whose husband, Kareem, consults on Area’s social media presence. “That’s also how we get sales information from people. Just listen to what everyone is telling you, put it in the collection, and everyone is happy!”
“What everyone is telling you” can come from anywhere. The label is considering e-commerce on WeChat so that it can connect with customers in China and the Middle East. It’s also mulling over an experiential retail concept in Los Angeles. Their favorite source of information, though, might be the tabloids. “We need a credit on Daily Mail!” Panszczyk says, half-jokingly, of the many times Jenner and her clique are covered by the British paper wearing Area’s garments. “Honestly, if the Daily Mail credits us, it gets placed in so many other outlets, and there are so many fan accounts [for these celebrities] that it becomes, almost, like another retail model for us.”
Fogg and Panszczyk are fully on board with the new wave of digital-first celebrities who favor their clothing. “It’s nice to have other people represent our brand. Yes, everything that we design and put on the runway is coming from our hearts and is part of us, but we are not the brand ambassadors. It’s not about us,” says Panszczyk.
“That crystal dress,” Fogg motions across the studio to a clear crystal net piece, “Yes, we shot it in the campaign with nothing underneath, but I wore it to the CFDA awards, pregnant.”
“I wore it under a suit to a party!” Panszczyk chimes in. “Anything goes. And we learn from everyone who touches our product, so it’s nice to have all these influencers, celebrities, and friends teaching us.”
To be this open-minded, to be this transparent, to admit that there is no grand scheme—“I hope we don’t know where we’re going to be in five years,” Fogg says, advocating for a fluidity of mind and intention—is fairly radical in the dog-eat-dog world of luxury fashion. It’s pretty radical, too, that a pair of 30-somethings without any high-power connections, who grew up far from fashion capitals in Kentucky (Fogg) and Poland and Holland (Panszczyk), could succeed without ever running a print advertisement or doing a collaboration. Maybe it’s not surprising, though. Fogg and Panszczyk have built an entire universe by being diamonds in the rough.
Originally Appeared on Vogue